A few days ago my 16-year-old stepson Jaden and I went out paddle boarding on Lake Como in the Bitterroot Mountains (in Montana, not Italy :). It was a beautiful sunny day. We decided to set our sights on making it to the waterfall at the other end of the lake, where Rock Creek spills in at the head of the lake. It took us about an hour and forty minutes to reach the waterfall and it was pretty smooth sailing the whole way. However, things changed quickly when we turned around and started heading back. The wind picked up and was coming right at us, making it very difficult to paddle. Every stroke was a struggle. We were hardly making any progress at all.
After a few minutes of hard paddling we headed for shore and decided to huff our boards down the hiking trail, which ran alongside the lake. We thought that if the wind settled down we’d hop back on the water but we soon discovered that our paddleboards were like giant wind sails as we headed down the trail so we made the call to deflate them, in the hopes that they’d be easier to manage. Hefting out our terribly awkward, deflated 20-pound boards (we weighed them when we got home) and paddles the 3-miles to the trailhead was the unplanned adventure part of our day.
I’d been visiting Al every Tuesday at 10:00am for over a year, before he passed away, 3 days ago. He was 91 years old, though he often liked to tell me he was 100. I never disagreed, as it seemed to bring him a wave of pride and pleasure to share with me the fact that he had reached triple digits. Besides, I figured, whether 91, 94, 97, or 100, they’re all milestones in my book, each one indicating having lived a long life.
Back in April, during one of our weekly visits, I decided it would be a good idea to jot down some of the things he said. I sat next to him with some paper and a pen and told him my intention. He found it humorous, and mildly baffling, that I wanted to record his Words of Wisdom, as I called it. He didn’t feel what he had to say was of any special value or worth remembering. But he obliged me just the same. (Sometimes it takes a writer to determine what’s noteworthy – as you’ll see, he’s very insightful.)
On Wednesday I found out that a sangha friend, three years younger than I am, passed away. I was emailed his obituary from our local Dharma Teacher. His name was Scott, and while he hadn’t recently been sitting with our Monday night meditation group, Be Here Now, he had been part of our sangha for the past couple of years or so and sat with us on and off during that period. I saw him just a couple of weeks ago walking by McCormick Park as I was driving by on Orange Street. He was walking alongside someone, talking and smiling. I remember thinking at the time, “I’m so glad to see him! He looks good…happy.”
Scott was bipolar, and often fluctuated back and forth between having a reliable place to stay and being homeless. His obituary listed no cause of death. Our assumption is he committed suicide. My heart swelled with sadness when I read of his passing.
While Scott was part of our mindfulness community, and has been to my house for sangha potlucks and gatherings, I didn’t know much about the conventional aspects of his life: where he was born, where he went to school, where he grew up, how many brothers and sisters he had, and the like. This isn’t unusual, for me, in relation to other casual sangha friends. Part of what I love about my sangha community is how connected I feel to people based on simply sharing our meditation practice together, sharing silence, and sharing mindful intention. While I may not know people’s last names or where they were born and raised, I feel an inherent closeness to them as a fellow sangha member.
Reading Scott’s obituary gave me a lot of the conventional information I hadn’t known, or really even thought about before. And it put me in touch with wanting to write my own obituary, which is nothing new in the world of writing-prompt ideas, for those who enjoy the art of the written word. So, here goes:
This is one of my favorite poems by Thay:
The Good News
They don’t publish
the good news.
The good news is published
We have a special edition every moment,
and we need you to read it.
The good news is that you are alive,
that the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh winter.
The good news is that you have wonderful eyes
to touch the blue sky.
The good news is that your child is there before you,
and your arms are available:
hugging is possible.
They only print what is wrong.
Look at each of our special editions.
We always offer the things that are not wrong.
We want you to benefit from them
and help protect them.
The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,
smiling its wondrous smile,
singing the song of eternity.
Listen! You have ears that can hear it.
Bow your head.
Listen to it.
Leave behind the world of sorrow,
and get free.
The latest good news
is that you can do it.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, from “Call Me By My True Names.”
I’ve been preparing for the next teaching talk I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at my local sangha Be Here Now. I’ve decided to base my talk on the topic of nonself, which is proving to be a good stretch for me. Since my last talk was on the nature of impermanence, specifically the Five Remembrances, I’ve decided to have my next two talks continue to form around the theme of the Three Dharma Seals, which are: impermanence, nonself, and nirvana. The Three Dharma Seals, as stated in Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, are described as follows: “Any teaching that does not bear these Three Seals cannot be said to be a teaching of the Buddha.” The Three Dharma Seals are essentially the marks which indicate any true teaching offered by the Buddha.
Another way to phrase nonself is to say no self, to which I then like to add the word “separate” in between, for clarity of purpose, as in: no separate self. And yet another way to say this would be to use Thay’s word “interbeing.”
Nonself is easy to misunderstand. Nonself is not a nihilistic approach to life’s human construct or some fancy metaphor explaining how everything is just an illusion and doesn’t really exist. Nonself speaks to the simple truth of how we cannot exist by ourselves alone. We are a collage of our blood ancestry, experiences, relationships, and interactions. There is no separate self we can point to as being disconnected from the whole of everything else. We are because everything else is. Just as a tree cannot exist without the influence of the sun, air, water, and soil we cannot exist without the collaborative entirety of our past and present influences. As Thay states, in the same book as mentioned above, “Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you.”